How Will NHL’s TV Talks Play Out? We Ask The Experts

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NHL will be first major sports league to put its TV rights up for bid during gold rush period of 2021-2022.
Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The National Hockey League will be the first big sports sports league to put its broadcast rights up for bid during the coming gold rush of 2021-2022, when the NFL’s entire TV portfolio could be up for grabs.

NBC Sports’ 10-year U.S. media rights deal expires after the 2020-2021 season. With live sports the most valuable entertainment going, you can bet your Stanley Cup the NHL is going to be looking for a very hefty increase from NBC’s current $200 million-a-year rights fee.

From the jump, ESPN and Fox Sports look like big-time bidders. Like NBC, they can show NHL games on a mixture of broadcast and cable TV. Turner Sports is also willing to open its checkbook, said sources.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, and Google are adding live games. Don’t forget streaming sports service DAZN, led by aggressive former ESPN leaders John Skipper and Jamie Horowitz – DAZN is also a big player in Canada, the birthplace of ice hockey.

NBC can proudly tout its work for the NHL. Jon Miller, NBC’s president of programming, co-created the popular Winter Classic in 2008. Those outdoor games rank as the league’s most-watched regular-season games on record.

The network was the first league TV partner to broadcast all Stanley Cup Playoff games nationally. NBC created the “Inside the Glass” analyst job between the player benches. It’s now used by almost all hockey broadcasters. It launched “Hockey Day in America” to celebrate the sport in the U.S.

This spring’s Stanley Cup Final Game 7 between the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins was the most-watched NHL game on record, averaging nearly 9 million viewers.

With the puck dropping on the NHL’s new 2019-2020 season, Front Office Sports asked top media writers and sports business experts how they see the NHL’s U.S. TV negotiations playing out. They agreed on one thing. The NHL is about to get paid. Excerpts:

Richard Deitsch, The Athletic, Sportsnet 590 The Fan:

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is confident that his sport will be in serious demand when the U.S. television rights come up. 

I happen to agree with him.

The league features exciting young players, with great room for growth in data and social media.  While regular viewership remains a challenge – and likely always will nationally — the postseason was a much better viewership story. The entire Stanley Cup Playoffs averaged 1.53 million viewers including streaming, the most-watched postseason since 1996. The seven-game Blues-Bruins Stanley Cup Final averaged 5.33 million viewers on NBC and NBCSN, the most-watched Cup Final since Blackhawks-Lightning in 2015 (5.55 million).

The NHL has become the centerpiece of NBCSN’s programming strategy. I think NBC will pay the money to retain the most significant part of the package including the Cup Final. But I would also expect ESPN to come away with game rights as part of the next deal, as well as a streaming service such as DAZN. 

The easiest prediction of all: The NHL will get paid handsomely.

Neil Best, Newsday:

NBC has done a good job of giving the NHL a TV home of its own and showing a commitment to growing that connection over the years, and the Peacock will find a way to retain rights to the league when they come up for renewal.

John Kosner, Kosner Media:

Gary Bettman has been NHL Commissioner for 26 years and he has his sport beautifully positioned for the next TV rights cycle. NBC has done a first-class job and surely wants to retain its rights. But both ESPN (in part for ESPN+) and Fox (to gain Playoff content in the Spring) might move to split the package. 

(CBS Sports chairman) Sean McManus has mentioned that CBS/Viacom will be more aggressive. Could they get involved too? Hockey is global and thus of greater interest to digital companies. However, with multiple traditional bidders likely for the NHL, I suspect that a non-TV company would take an ancillary NHL rights package this time around. I won’t hazard a guess on the winning rights bid but the key thing is having competition and I expect the NHL will generate plenty of that.

Ryan Glasspiegel, The Big Lead:

I think it gets split at least two ways. I think NBC keeps a piece of it, including the Stanley Cup Final. I think that FOX and ESPN are bidders and that ultimately ESPN gets part of the package. (ESPN’s) Burke Magnus told me on the record that they could ‘schedule the NHL playoffs pretty easily even with our NBA commitment right now,’ and I take that as a sign they will be serious bidders for it.

READ MORE: Could NHL Show Be Next Big Deal For DAZN?

Brooks Melchior, Sports by Brooks:

Given the skyrocketing rights fees of other leagues, labor peace and momentum generated from the Bruins-Blues Stanley Cup Finals, I would expect the NHL to command between $400-$450M per season in its new deal. If NBC is to retain the rights it will have to stave off a legitimate challenge from FOX – eliminating the chance that either network will land the league deal at a bargain rate. With ESPN’s NBA commit it is hard to imagine the four-letter will seriously pursue anything more than the consolidation of the OTT arrangement it has maintained with the league.”

Bobby Burack, The Big Lead:

I’ll predict that ESPN, FOX, and NBC will be the three most aggressive bidders for the NHL rights come 2021. And that it ends with NBC and ESPN winning. There is great value for ESPN in putting quality NHL games on their prioritized streaming service, ESPN+. Maybe they will air select games on their linear networks, but under this prediction, we see the vast majority of national NHL games on NBC, NBCSN, and ESPN+ with the Stanley Cup Finals remaining where they are. Do not be surprised if we at least hear DAZN’s name pop up during these negotiations.

David J. Halberstam, Sports Broadcast Journal:

That’s a toughie. For all its shortcomings as a trailing fourth sport, the NHL has been creative. They’re also pretty tied at the hip with NBC. I would bet that the Peacock will reign. With Comcast’s digital tentacles and traditional cable channels. NBCUniversal, Comcast has the bandwidth. 

The question is would an Amazon step up as it did with Thursday Night (Football)? The NHL just doesn’t have the big TV numbers – but its ratio of women viewers are higher than you’d expect and the NHL has always had high income viewers.

READ MORE: St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup Victory Breaks Fanatics Sales Record In 12 Hours

Brad Adgate, Media Consultant:

Wow, I think NBC Sports would like to keep all of it like the English Premier League, IndyCar & Olympics. But there are a lot of sports nets looking for live sports so it’ll come down to that. The more bidding the higher the fees. I think NBC will wind up sharing it with another vertical net like CBS Sports, FS1 or perhaps a streaming video provider like Amazon who are interested in live sports.